Kowton – Des Bisous // Pale Fire 001
From his earliest work as Narcossist back in 07/08 to the off kilter house music interpretations for Keysound and Idle Hands under the Kowton alias, his music has never sat comfortably in any genre. More recently Joe Cowton’s work as part of the Livity Sound crew has revealed his true colours. The ashtray grey reductions of ‘Jam 01’/’More Games’ on the Livity plate reference the decayed concrete textures of Andy Stott at the same time as the brash midi strings of John E Cash. It’s safe to say that these tracks are the the most Kowton of all. Those who have seen any of the Hessle Audio crew, Joy O, Boddika or Bok Bok recently, or those with a keen ear on Rinse may have heard ‘Des Bisous’, another Kowton production, even more decayed and broken than the recent Livity record, filled with all the dread and rawness that is so essential to underground UK dance music. He recently announced that the home for ‘Des Bisous’ will be the new ‘Pale Fire’ label that he has started as an outlet for his own productions (for now at least). I asked Joe what brought on this shift in sonics, to talk about books and why the UK underground is in fine health at the moment. We meet in a cafe on a typically grey, rainy afternoon with ‘Kind Of Blue’ being played over the in-house speakers at an appropriately abrasive volume. Joe sits down and places his book on the table, a Nabakov novel which leads me neatly into the first question - What’s with the name ‘Pale Fire’? ‘The label is called ‘Pale Fire’, he starts, ‘which is a Nabakov reference. It’s probably one of his better books, it’s a masterpiece in timing and its not minimal but it holds things back – it’s deliberately obtuse for the most part, to the point where you really need to pay attention to understand it but at the same time it’s so well written that it’s beautiful in itself as prose. So you have this kind of crossover between something which you can understand on a very finite level and care for the intricacies more, or something you can just read and be like, ‘that’s pretty well done’. That's the appeal of it. ‘Above all, it's the timing of it,’ he continues, ‘that’s Nabokov's thing...almost in a very Techno kind of way, the pacing is everything. Sometimes it's excruciatingly slow and other times it's particularly quick and then he acknowledges the fact that it’s been quick with that section and will do something different for the next. ‘But yeah, as a name, it’s such an uncompromising thing, the book, it’s like “fuck you, you don’t understand me”, there’s no easy way through it.’ Is the title of the track taken from the same book, I ask? ‘No’ – he pauses for a moment – ‘it was quite a personal thing, I didn’t know what it meant at the time...It was part of a text message that got sort of lost in translation. I took it to mean something bad at first until I put it into Google translate and it turns out it roughly means “kisses”, and then it was like, “oh, that’s not actually such a bad thing”.’ The label is a vinyl only affair, to the point where ‘without really even thinking about it, we didn’t get any digital masters done, so literally the only record of it is the vinyl.’ This makes perfect sense coming from a staunch supporter of vinyl and dubplate culture and Idle Hands record shop employee. With such a deep pool of references from the title and the name of the label alone, are we to expect elaborate artwork when the record drops at the end of May? “We played around with it a lot,’ he says with typical reserve. ‘The idea was to hand-draw each one...but that didn’t work out. so for practicality’s sake, we're going to hand stamp it. ‘I don’t love the whole hand-stamped white label ra ra ra kind of thing,’ he admits. ‘[But] as much as I love really nice sleeves, with this particular record it's almost like it doesn't deserve one, it's too much of a dirty track to put it in a nice sleeve...it wouldn't really make sense.’ The tracks share similar building blocks with earlier releases on Idle Hands, ‘Basic Music Knowledge’ and ‘Drunk On Sunday’ are obvious examples, but ‘Jam 01’ and ‘More Games’ sound like they have been attacked by a grit-blaster, leaving the previously matte veneer in tatters. Was it a natural progression? ‘I think it is a bit… I bought some new gear that adds to that but at the same time, these are records i can play myself to a packed dancefloor, and that's something that’s really satisfying, whereas some of the Idle Hands bits are more like, late night or first thing in the evening kind of tunes, these two new ones are definitely more banging. And it was also a process of realising that I CAN make tunes like this, so I am going to make tunes like this...you know...I LIKE making these tunes...’ So when you’re in the studio, is it a case of writing the track and then stripping it back? I ask, or do you set yourself strict guidelines? He leans back in his chair. ‘Yes, but also, say on average [each track] uses about eight channels, it’s about being militant. I think working with Pev has kind of...well, Pev doesn’t like many things... He also does this thing very well where he’ll bring a new bit into the tune and an old bit goes, there’s never really a massive crescendo in his tracks. It’s always a very level playing field of lots of bits that interlock and intervals come into each other and that’s what makes the tune so rolling...it’s almost restraint by necessity because if you don't work in that way then things become dull. I guess I learned a lot from him.’ The flip side of the record is ‘Dub Bisous’, a dub mix of the title track run through a desk, making the most out of the minimal arrangement and pushing it to its limit. Will a dub mix be a regular feature on the label? ‘I’d like it to be. I don’t know huge amounts about reggae, I’m not a connoisseur by any means but it's more about the technique, the idea of pushing things to extremities. It doesn't make sense on a conventional level, it’s like all you’re listening to there is the snare, but it’s delayed to the point where it’s become this sort of chain of noise, and then you can just stop it if you want. You don’t have to fade it or be nice with it or anything like that, it’s brutal in many respects. ‘I think that fits in a strange way. It's like, OK (the tune) is a bit House, a bit Grime, but if you take that dub aesthetic and add it over the top, then you’re literally like… that no bullshit approach again, it’s “do that and it's fine’”. It works and it makes the track more interesting. It was such a break, previously I'd always thought that everything had to fade up and down and be so pristinely placed.’ The effect that Dub music has had on the UK underground is immeasurable. I’m curious to see if he feels his music is pushing that rich heritage further. ‘Yeah, if you want to draw a line like that,’ he says, ‘it’s somewhere on that line...If I hadn’t listened to so much Grime, I wouldn't have made that record and the bass drops are definitely Jungle and all the delays are from Dub...so yeah, it’s definitely UK. I think too,’ he continues, ‘it feels like perhaps we were reaching a point in UK music where people were veering a bit too much towards just generic House, and if it’s got to a point where the most interesting records coming out are re-issues, then it’s about time to say “hang on a minute, let's go back to being more UK about things and less Detroit or Chicago. I think that’s a trend across the board really...’ Finishing his drink, he looks down at the tape recorder and adds, ‘I was talking to a mate the other day and he said that if all we’re doing is making House music, then surely...’ he pauses… ‘I mean, it’s not like innovation is the only point in making music but surely its our responsibility as producers to do something that makes people go, “what the fuck is that?!” rather than just, “oh, that’s another Larry Heard tune, it's good but i've heard it 1,000 times before...” We talk about the new crop of vinyl-only, self distributed labels that are popping up in Bristol: labels like Livity Sound, BRSTL and Commune. Pale Fire will be distributed by the Idle Hands distro service later this month, does he feel part of the movement? ‘Yeah, most definitely, and what's even more encouraging is the fact that they’re selling well...I mean the Peng Sound thing, that was ridiculous, the BRSTL thing is doing really well, it’s by no means cemented yet but it does feel like a new generation getting interested in records and putting out good records. Long may it last.’ Des Bisous // Dub Bisous will be available on Pale Fire at the end of May. Alex Digard.